Friday, December 2, 2011

A totally new model for education.

Scott Page, one of my dissertation advisors and a genuine polymath, is teaching a class on Model Thinking next semester.  The class sounds very nifty, but it's the way that it's presented that blows me away.  I'm convinced we're at a watershed moment.

Scott's class is one of a couple dozen or so follow-up classes to the Stanford AI class that attracted 140,000 students.  They're being delivered using a totally new model of education.
  • They're free.  Yes, free.
  • They're scalable -- any number of students can sign up.
  • They're taught by rock star scientists and professors -- people at the cutting edge of their fields.
  • They're graded. Students submit work (multiple-choice, mostly) and get grades and a certificate of completion at the end of the course*.
This combination is completely new.  There are already plenty of lectures and how-to videos on YouTube (free and scalable), and the Teaching Company has been publishing lecture series for quite a while (many of them taught by leading scholars), and the Kahn academy has been experimenting with new ways of deploying content and structuring classes.  But no-one has done all these things together.

This is just the latest in a series of innovations that are going to turn education -- public, private, higher, you name it -- upside down.  Why settle for a half-prepped lecture from a busy assistant professor when you can get the same content--better--online for free?  If you're the teacher, why bother to prep the lecture when someone else has already given it?

* Yes, yes. The grading is pretty rudimentary, but it can't be that long until smart people figure out how to do better.It's a problem I'd be interested in working on.


  1. Because, teachers teach students not just content. Because, education isn't just about learning content. Because, when we take the interpersonal aspect out of education, we lose out on interpersonal skills and content.

  2. @ Sui Sin Far: I hear you. There are some aspects of education that can never be digitized. Feedback and coaching are crucial. One reason I'm excited about the new possibilities is that they may free up teachers to do *more* of those things. The Kahn academy is doing is a great example of innovation in that direction. These online courses open new doors as well.

  3. Working in online education, I'm especially interested in this kind of development - it's fantastic!

    I also have thought a lot about the point Sui Sin brings up.

    On the one hand, I agree - talking with brilliant people exposes you to new thoughts and challenges your thinking in ways that grading just *CAN'T*. I think it's vitally important for people to get together, discuss their ideas, talk over what they're learning.

    However, I first have to ask whether feeling like this kind of education is not AS good means that we should tell people they shouldn't have access to it. Does Sui Sin really want to tell people who can't afford / can't get in / can't just say farewell to kids and work for a few years that they're not allowed to get the best education they can? Are chats with professors online so bad as to be irrelevant? (btw, you're right Abe, professors can be freed to teach many more students by having their lectures pre-taped and then having one-on-one interaction with students who seek them out), Does talking with colleagues, discussing with friends, teaching your spouse, not count as interpersonal contact? MUST it be on a college campus to be valid?

    Surely "not as good" can still be pretty amazing - and I suspect, for many reasons, this kind of education is actually much better for many. I'm pretty sure I disagree with the notion that just because it's "not as good" for everyone, it's "not good enough" for anyone.

  4. @Margaret - Great points. I have a hunch that many of the students signing up for these courses are in India and China -- places with huge underserved needs for education. They might also be at small community colleges in the U.S. -- places too small to offer some of these specialized classes on their own.

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  7. I did not discount the idea all together. A move towards producing high quality information in video-audio format available to all? Sounds good. But, I wouldn't want to show up and just be told to read a book.

    I responded initially to the questions asked: "If you're the teacher, why bother to prep the lecture when someone else has already given it?" Teaching isn't just transmitting one person's knowledge into another person's head. Just listening and repeating the information is not learning. Multiple choice is not assessment. So, while I find this exciting too, I still have reservations.

    I can also think of several examples were videos are useful but by themselves not sufficient, besides lacking direct guidance, spot checking and community.

  8. Yes, I agree completely. If these classes were the last word in online education, I'd say we're better off with the old version. But this is just the beginning, and I'm excited to see where this goes.